Please excuse my last post; I couldn't resist making a brief, pretentious foray into more descriptive writing. I think I got it out of my system now, though.
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I said I would write about them at some point, so here goes.
The kids are great. They keep things interesting, for sure. But they also are the source of a near-constant stream of annoyances and minor ethical dilemmas.
Most of these result from the fact that there are just so many of them (in addition to the 17 from next door, there are always plenty more from the neighboring houses hanging around), and they are so bored, and they have so little supervision. Really, given those factors, it's not surprising that problems result.
The big issue is that they are always asking for stuff. No, actually, asking is not the right word; demanding is more accurate. And there's no way to escape from it – they come right up to the glassless windows and stand there, shouting our names (or rough approximations thereof) and requesting bread, bananas, stickers, pencils, pens, or whatever else they happen to see lying around as they peer around the curtains. It's irritating, and exhausting in its constancy, to say the least.
But at the same time, it's hard to know what to do. I don't doubt that the kids are genuinely hungry – they're all so darn skinny. They wear clothes so tattered they can hardly be called “clothes” anymore; usually the boys are shirtless, with a pair of shorts that may or may not have a giant hole in what one would generally consider the critical region of shorts. Sometimes they're just naked. How crappy is it to turn away a kid like that, when I can certainly afford to give out a few pieces of bread, or a banana?
At the same time, giving in to the demands may do more harm than good in the long run. I worry about the message I am sending to the kids – and to the parents and others in the community – when I do give them food, or school books, or whatever. Am I ingraining in them an understanding they can walk up to any foreign person, demand resources, and be given them without qualifications? How will fostering that kind of an attitude contribute to development in any way? I'm no expert, but it certainly seems like that kind of mentality is fatal when it comes to the promotion of real, sustainable development. Why work toward acquiring resources when you are shown over and over again that you can have them for free if you just ask?
There's also the fact that, although I can afford to give out a couple of cookies every once in awhile, I can't give 25 kids a substantial amount of food every day. So where do I draw the line? How do I do things as fairly as possible? I've explained a couple of times to a couple of kids that I don't have enough for everyone, that I can't give them anything because it's not fair to the rest. But there's the nagging part of my brain that says, is it really more fair to give out nothing to everyone than it is to give out something to a few? Things aren't fair in the first place; it's sure as hell not fair that I can buy all of the food I need, and they are helpless and hungry.
I've tried to start asking them, “What did you do today that I should give you bread? Did you go to school? Did you study hard? Did you read and write today? OK, well, if you worked hard today, then I can give you this bread.” But I have a hard time believing that asking those things is actually any different from just giving them the bread without any strings attached. And sometimes we give them food or stickers or pages out of a coloring book if they do little things for us – take our trash out, help us get water, and so on. Still, doing this makes me feel a bit too much like the rich colonial-era white person with the African servant boys, which is not a feeling I enjoy at all.
The other major issue, besides them asking for stuff, is that they go through our garbage and pull out any food item, no matter how rotten or moldy, to eat. It's heartbreaking. It's to the point where sometimes I try to sneak out the back and run to the pit where we bury trash, to toss moldy things away before the kids can get them. But if they see me heading that way, they will literally sprint to intercept me before I can get there. And some days it's just too much work to try to avoid them. I'm happy to give them food that we're not going to eat if it's OK, but I don't want to be responsible for a bunch of kids getting really sick from bacteria- and mold-infested food.
Anyway. Like I said, they're sweet kids, and they say and do funny things. Sometimes they serenade us with songs, and lately they've been making up songs about us (“________ and ________, they are cooking fine rice!!” “_________, she is coming home from jogging!!”). And they genuinely try to look out for us, by warning us not to leave towels out on the porch to dry where they might get stolen, for example. Of course, that makes it all the more crappy that, no matter what I do, we all lose somehow. If I give them the things that they demand, we all feel good in the short term, but I'm teaching an unfortunate lesson in dependency. If I refuse to give them anything, they are disappointed, and I feel mean and petty. So what do I do?